Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Uncanny dreams and deathly sleep haunt the most famous lovers in literary history.

The woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo has several ominous references to beds, sleep, and dreams.  These nocturnal elements reflect the tension between the passionate yearnings of the young lovers and the tragic fate that awaits them.  As Friar Laurence vainly warns, “these violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet discover both ecstatic delights and annihilating ends in the darkest, dreamiest realms of night.

Romeo’s First Dream and Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” Speech

In one of the early scenes of the play (currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Emily Ota as Juliet and William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo), a moment of witty banter suddenly turns into a long, weirdly unsettling monologue about the nature of dreaming.  It is, I believe, the most extensive treatment of dreams in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it encapsulates in a single surreal passage the inspiring-yet-terrifying energies of human dream experience.

At the start of Act I, scene iv, Romeo meets with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio on a street outside the family house of the Capulets, sworn enemies of Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  The Capulets are hosting a feast and masquerade ball, and Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo have decided to wear masks and sneak into the party.  Just before entering the house, however, Romeo abruptly stops and questions the wisdom of their plan.  Even though the woman he desperately loves, Rosaline, will be attending the festivities, he worries that something bad will happen if they go forth.  Mercutio demands that Romeo explain his sudden misgivings, and the following exchange ensues:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio: And so did I.

Romeo: Well, what was yours?

Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.

Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

(1.4.51-56)

Romeo believes his dream is warning him of danger in the future.  Mercutio is more interested in the party, however, and he tries to deflect Romeo’s gloomy prognostication with a sharp-edged jest: he lures Romeo into asking him if he really had a dream, and then calls into question the veracity of anyone who claims to have a dream to tell.  But Romeo has a strong feeling about the potential significance of his dream, and he tries to persuade Mercutio to take it seriously.

Romeo gets more than he bargained for.  Mercutio launches into an elaborate and fanciful speech that covers more than forty lines of text, starting with this:

Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone…

(I.iv.57-59)

What follows is a strange, magical journey into the realm of the fairies and their nocturnal activities.  As he does at greater length in the romantic fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also written around this same time (1595-1596), Shakespeare draws upon popular folklore to envision a colorful world of tiny tricksters who, hovering just outside the range of our ordinary awareness, are busily influencing our lives in ways both fair and foul.  Despite her miniscule size and delicate nature, Queen Mab wields total power over us when we sleep and dream.  Mercutio goes on describe what happens when she visits various kinds of people in their slumber:

Mercutio: And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers knees, that dream on curtsies straight; O’er lawyers fingers, who straight dream on fees; O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream.

(I.iv.74-78)

What Mercutio describes is quite similar to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which states that people tend to dream most frequently about things that emotionally concern them in waking life. Lovers dream of love, courtiers dream of kneeling in court, lawyers dream of receiving money from clients—whatever is most important in a person’s life, that’s what they’re most likely to dream about.  Mercutio describes other examples of Queen Mab’s dream-stimulating activities: she tickles a minister’s nose, and he dreams of a financially secure job; she drives over a soldier’s neck, and he dreams of cutting enemy throats.  The common thread throughout these examples is that dreams are personalized reflections of people’s current concerns and not, as Romeo assumes, prophecies about the future.  In this regard, Mercutio’s speech is a remarkable anticipation of a modern psychological theory about dreaming.

Queen Mab takes mischievous delight in causing chaos and disorder, a fairy trait she shares with Puck, Oberon, and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  As Mercutio continues his speech, this quality comes to the fore, and at a certain point Mercutio seems to lose control of his own story:

Mercutio: This is the very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage. This is she—

(I.iv.92-98)

Here, Shakespeare condenses several folk-beliefs about the dark forces behind dreaming. Queen Mab morphs into a relentless incubus or night hag who tangles hair, presses on bodies, preys on fears, and forces sexual submission.  She is the embodiment of all the nightmarish powers set loose within our sleep, and she devotes especially malicious attention to the torments of “sluttish” young women.  The physiological effects described here could, in modern terms, be diagnosed as night terrors, with the sensation of pressure and feelings of overwhelming fear.  They could also be explained in terms of psychoanalytic theory: Queen Mab is the primal Id of the human unconscious, running wild through our dreams while the ego slumbers in blissful ignorance.

Most productions of the play have Mercutio delivering these final lines of his speech in a manic frenzy, as the fairies’ malevolent mayhem threatens to overwhelm him.  The OSF version, with the incandescent Sara Bruner as Mercutio, follows that traditional staging, but with an intriguing gender twist that gives the speech a deeper level of emotional resonance.

At this point, Mercutio has become so unhinged that Romeo steps forward to interrupt him and snap him out of the psychotic spell of his own words.  Now it’s Romeo’s turn to play down the significance of dreams, in an effort to calm his friend’s frazzled nerves:

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.

(I.iv.100-101)

Mercutio responds with another unexpected shift of tone and attitude:

Mercutio: True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant that the wind…

(I.iv.102-106)

After dwelling at such length on the wondrous exploits of Queen Mab and her fairy consorts, Mercutio abruptly concludes with a rejection of dreaming as a whole.  A modern materialist could not express any more eloquently the idea that dreams are sheer nonsense.  Here, Mercutio is anticipating the basic themes of neuroscientific reductionism, another strand of current thinking about dreams that treats them as the disordered and meaningless by-products of an “idle brain” during sleep.

In the context of the play and this particular scene, Mercutio’s claim is not very persuasive, since he just spent several minutes giving a highly detailed account of the meaningful connections between people’s dreams and their waking lives.  Indeed, his belated rejection of dreaming seems more like a desperate attempt to deny what he has just openly acknowledged to be real and true.  He’s trying to put the lid back on the magic box, but it’s too late.  The fairies have already escaped.

Benvolio finally draws their attention back to the matter at hand, and on they go to the party.  But Romeo has been deeply rattled.  More than ever, he feels a prophetic sense of darkening gloom ahead and the inescapable prospect of “untimely death.”

So this is Romeo’s frame of mind when he puts on his mask and walks into the party at the Capulets.  He is deeply depressed about his unrequited love for Rosaline; he just had a very worrisome dream portending some future ill; and his friend nearly goes mad talking about the supernatural powers of malicious mischief set loose in our dreams.  Plus, he knows that if his true identity is discovered, he will likely be killed.  By entering the party, Romeo is entering a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Juliet’s Merging of Beds, Sleep, and Death

We do not know what Juliet dreams about.  We only know what she does not dream about.  In her first appearance, Juliet’s mother calls for her to discuss an important question:

Capulet’s wife: Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet: It is an honor that I dream not of.

(I.iii.68-70)

Juliet’s reply is both modest and diplomatic.  As an obedient and virtuous daughter, she accepts that her parents will decide when, where, and to whom she will be pledged in the sacred bond of marriage.  Until that time, the topic is the farthest thing from her mind, something that does not even appear in her dreams.  Her reply also includes a subtle degree of reluctance to think about marriage at this stage of life.  Her nurse has just given a long and rambling speech, the upshot of which is that Juliet is not yet 14 years of age, barely past childhood.  But Juliet’s mother insists that other “ladies of esteem” in Verona are married by this age and already bearing children, as did she when she first married Juliet’s father.

This is preamble to dramatic news.  Her mother says that a well-regarded gentleman by the name of Paris has shown marital interest in Juliet (he “seeks you for his love”), and he has come to their house that very evening to win her hand.  Juliet’s mother gives her virtually no time to react—“speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” Juliet dutifully answers that she will try to like him, but no more than her mother says she should. The nurse shows no such reluctance, as she makes abundantly clear the sexual implications of this sudden turn of events: “Women grow by men… Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”

Juliet speaks very few lines in this scene, which is fitting since she really has no say in any of these choices or decisions.  She dreams of none of this because she has no agency, no creative investment in any of it; it all happens to her, by decree of her parents, leaving her imagination no reason to wonder about alternative possibilities.

So this is Juliet’s frame of mind when she puts on her mask and joins her family’s feast.  After dwelling on the fact that she is currently 13 years old, she is informed by her mother that she has reached a marrying age, that a particular gentleman has already expressed his romantic interest in her, and that said gentleman is present in their home right now, ready to secure her affections.  Thanks to the nurse’s bawdy commentary, she cannot avoid the reality that she will be expected to engage in sexual relations with him.  Thus when she goes to the party, Juliet enters a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

And once there, she meets Romeo.  Their magical first encounter surprises them both; this is not what they were expecting when they walked into the party.  Completely forgetting the people they were supposed to seek (Rosaline for Romeo, Paris for Juliet), they almost instantly fall in love with a masked stranger, in a moment of mysteriously intense romance.

When the gathering ends, Juliet anxiously begs the nurse:

Juliet: Go ask his name.—If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

(I.v.73-74)

This is the first of many instances in which Juliet and other characters make symbolic connections between beds, sleep, and death.  These references are also intertwined with the bed as a physical space for passion, love, and the creation of new life.  The grave and the wedding bed—they occupy opposite ends of an existential spectrum, and yet in this story they inexorably draw towards each other and finally merge into a tragic unity.

The early references are the happiest.  As Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s balcony exchanging vows of love, he marvels at the incredible magic of the moment:

Romeo: O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(II.ii147-149)

A few moments later he bids a final farewell to Juliet at her balcony:

Romeo: Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

(II.ii.202-203)

After the friar performs their secret wedding, Juliet eagerly anticipates her first opportunity to be alone with her husband:

Juliet: Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night; for thou wilt lie upon the wings of night whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back. Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; give me my Romeo…

(III.ii.17-21)

Romeo and Juliet finally get to celebrate their marriage with a “love-performing night” together in her bed (III.v), and they lament the coming of the day (Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”).

Now everything darkens, and fate closes in on the young couple.  After they part, Juliet learns that she will soon be wedded to Paris, while Romeo finds he has been exiled from Verona for the killing of Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a street brawl.  With the friar’s help, Juliet decides to take a sleeping potion that will “wrought on her the form of death”:

Friar Laurence: And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death thou shalt continue two and forty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant sleep. Now, when the bridegroom [Paris] in the morning comes to rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.

(IV.i.106-110)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

The friar promises to tell Romeo to go to Juliet in the Capulet tomb after she has revived, so they can secretly escape the city together.  Alas, the plan goes badly awry.  Paris gets to the tomb first, and mourns at what he believes to be the dead Juliet’s side:

Paris: Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones.

(V.iii.12-13)

Then Romeo enters the tomb.  Paris draws his sword and attacks; Romeo kills him.  He then goes to Juliet’s motionless body and falls for the deception, too: he thinks she is truly dead.  Unable to distinguish death from sleep, Romeo decides to join her in death.  Immediately upon his doing so, Juliet awakens.  The friar arrives at this point, and he urges Juliet to leave at once:

Friar Laurence: I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.

(V.iii.156-157)

Juliet refuses.  Instead, she decides to join her beloved Romeo in eternal slumber.  After a final kiss, she takes his dagger and presses its point against her chest:

Juliet: This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

(V.iii.175)

Romeo’s Joyful Dream

The agonizing conclusion to the story makes it all the more peculiar that, just before he learns of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo awakens with a happy dream.  His speech at the start of Act V is a final beam of light in the gathering darkness:

Romeo: If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne, and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead (strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!) and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!

(V.i.1-11)

What are we to make of this dream?  At one level it seems horribly misleading—Romeo is about to receive absolutely terrible news about Juliet, and death will soon consume them both.  The dream seems like a cruel hoax, and a painfully ironic example of why we should not “trust the flattering truth of sleep.”

But at another level, perhaps the dream is leading Romeo towards an awareness of a different realm of union with Juliet, a transcendent realm where he will be “an emperor,” and where life will conquer death.  For the truth is, there is no hope in the present waking world for him and Juliet, not with their families’ violent hatred of each other.  Romeo’s dream offers him an alternative way of understanding what the future is about to bring.  Their love is, by its very existence, a miraculous triumph over the rigid constraints that govern their lives.  They have successfully defied the social authorities and asserted their own desires for romantic fulfillment.  Their kisses have the power to transport them beyond the petty feuds of this world to a beautiful and joyful world all their own.

Romeo notes the strange element in his dream of a dead man thinking living thoughts.  Today we might call this a variation on metacognition in dreaming, a type of “thinking about thinking.”  Here, it’s Romeo thinking about what he would be thinking if he were dead.  This seems impossible from a conventional waking perspective, just as it’s impossible that he could ever actually become an emperor in the waking world.  But these things are possible in the realm of dreaming, and this suggests an expansion of normal awareness, a dissolving of ordinary boundaries, and the discovery of new potentials beyond the limits of the present.  That does seem to be the tangible effect of the dream on Romeo once he awakens.  It breaks through his fears, lifts his spirits, and stimulates a welcoming attitude towards the future. For one last moment he feels pure lightness and joy, and he revels in the wonders of his love for Juliet.

Is that a cruel deception, or a profoundly truthful vision?

Earlier in the play, Mercutio gives a variety of reasons why we should ignore dreams: dreamers lie, the fairies manipulate people’s minds, and anyway it’s all nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  But by the end of the play the references to dreams shift towards an emphasis on their accuracy in reflecting reality.  After killing Paris in the Capulet tomb, Romeo briefly wonders about something his servant, Balthasar, said to him on the way to the tomb:

Romeo: I think he told me Paris should have married Juliet: Said he not so? Or did I dream it so?

(V.iii.78-79)

Balthasar probably did say so, but for Romeo it could equally have been a dream; all are one in his mind now.

A few moments later, Friar Laurence encounters Balthasar outside the tomb.  Romeo had told Balthasar to wait for him, and under no circumstances to follow him into the tomb.  Now Balthasar anxiously tells the friar he fears something terrible has happened:

Balthasar: As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, and that my master slew him.

(V.iii.141-143)

The staging of the scene leaves Balthasar’s exact position unclear (“I’ll hide me hereabout”), so we don’t know if he saw or heard Romeo and Paris while they were fighting; either way, Balthasar’s dream accurately reflects what did in fact happen in the tomb.

In both instances during this final climactic scene of the play, the distinction has dissolved between dreaming and waking reality.  Dreams have become transparent to the actuality of what’s happening in this world.  That is the final, spiritually illuminating context for Romeo’s joyful dream and its flattering truth about the eternal love he shares with Juliet.

 

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Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Yew tree photo is from Roi.dagobert

 

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly BulkeleyShakespeare’s most cunning villain turns sleep and dreaming against his enemies.

At the center of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy is the cruel dynamic between Othello, a magnificent warrior and heroic leader, and Iago, his resentful subordinate. (In the current production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chris Butler performs in the title role, and Iago is played by Danforth Comins). Despite being a dark-skinned Moor, Othello has earned the trust of the white Christians of Venice because of his military valor and success in defending their city.  But Iago secretly hates Othello, and he launches a devilish plan to ruin, humiliate, and destroy him, all while pretending to be Othello’s most faithful servant.  A subtle weapon in Iago’s arsenal is his malicious manipulation of people’s perceptions of sleep, beds, and dreaming.

The play opens with an overwrought gentleman, Roderigo, furiously accusing Iago of betrayal.  Roderigo is in love with Desdemona (played in the OSF production by Alejandra Escalante), a Senator’s daughter, and he has been paying Iago for help in wooing her. Now comes the shocking news that Desdemona has already married Othello, and Roderigo demands to know how Iago could have let this happen.  These are Iago’s first words of the play:

“’Sblood, but you’ll not hear me. If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.” (I.i.4-5)

Iago tells Roderigo his suspicions are no more credible than the fleeting whimsies of a dream.  He relies on a kind of proverbial phrasing that equates dreams with something as far as possible from the conscious mind.  He’s telling Roderigo: Not only did I not know about this, but it was not even in the furthest reaches of my awareness.

In fact, Iago did know about it, and he may well have dreamed about it, too (more on that below).  He already knows about Desdemona, and he already has a plan for using her against the Moor.  While he and Roderigo have been talking about their mutual hatred of Othello, Iago has been steering them through the dark nighttime streets of Venice, straight to the home of Desdemona and her family. Their yelling brings Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to the window. Prodded by Iago, Roderigo informs the Senator that his daughter has secretly married Othello (Iago puts it in more inflammatory terms: “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115-116)).  Brabantio urgently calls for all the servants of his house to awaken, light candles, and search for his daughter.  For a moment he pauses to reflect:

“This accident is not unlike my dream, belief of it oppresses me already.” (I.i.141-142)

Iago slinks into the night before Brabantio confirms that Desdemona is missing, but his dastardly work is done.  Brabantio has awakened to his worst fear—the dishonoring of his daughter—and Iago has insured that all his paternalistic rage will be aimed straight at Othello.

It seems unlikely that Iago knew Brabantio was dreaming right before he awoke, but it certainly works to the villain’s advantage.  In a way, Iago both creates Brabantio’s dream and interprets it.  If he and Roderigo had not caused a noisy uproar, Brabantio would have kept sleeping, and might not have remembered this dream at all.  Once Brabantio is awake, if he had not been immediately confronted with the shocking news of his daughter’s betrayal, he might have associated the dream with something else in his life.  Although he seems slightly ambivalent about the dream’s relevance to the situation with his daughter (they are “not unlike”), it takes no time for the two to become fused emotionally in his mind (“it oppresses me already”).  This is just as Iago would want.  Iago has manipulated Brabantio into using the energies of his dreams to fuel his vendetta against Othello.

From Brabantio’s perspective, everything in the play turns out just as badly as he feared it would.  In that regard, his dream could be regarded as an accurate prophecy of the doomed future.  Even though he’s wrong about Desdemona’s virtue and integrity, he’s right about the danger to her posed by the Moor.  Iago is the interpretive agent of this realization, and he turns Brabantio’s insight into a weapon aimed straight at Othello’s heart.

Alas, the shot has no effect.  Brabantio cannot persuade the leaders of Venice to act against Othello, given their overriding need of his military protection, plus Desdemona’s sincere declarations of love for him.

Thus Iago must devise a new plan to destroy Othello.  In the final lines of Act I Iago is onstage alone, pondering the question “How? How?” In a burst of malevolent inspiration, he envisions an intricate plot using people’s fears and biases against them, all leading to a single violent end.  Iago revels in his own nightmarish brilliance:

“I have’t, it is engend’red: Hell and Night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” (I.iii.410-411)

Later, just before a key piece of action begins, Iago refers again to the nocturnal provenance of his plan:

“But here they come: if consequence do but approve my dream, my boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.” (II.iii.61-62)

He likens his scheme to a prophetic dream that predicts the future.  At one level this is quite ironic, since Iago is anything but superstitious.  His behavior reflects a pure form of willful, defiant individualism; he is determined to create his own chosen future, not wait passively for his fate.

But at another level this comment appears as an honest self-recognition of his unusual powers of imagination.  Iago’s “dream” is a detailed prediction about what will happen if certain people’s emotions are stimulated in specific ways and channeled towards certain other people.  He has set this dream in motion, and he can accurately foresee where it will lead.  He knows that Othello’s downfall will begin with the destruction of his sleep:

“Not Poppy, nor Mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou ow’dst yesterday.” (III.iii.320-323)

While he steals the sweet sleep of Othello, Iago adds bitter falsehoods to the sleep of the Moor’s top military assistant, Cassio.  To persuade Othello that Cassio has illicit desires for Desdemona, Iago tells the following story:

“I lay with Cassio lately, and being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep. There are a kind of men so loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter their affairs: one of this kind is Cassio. In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’ And then, Sir, would he gripe, and wring my hand, cry ‘Oh sweet creature,’ and then kiss me hard, as if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots that grew upon my lips; laid his leg o’er my thigh, and sigh’d and kiss’d, and then cried, ‘Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor.’” (III.iii.403-415)

This story serves Iago’s cause in several ways.  Because of the nature of the circumstances (it’s night, they’re asleep), it cannot be checked or verified.  It appears to be a special, unguarded insight into Cassio’s true character, and it fits with other clues Iago has laid before the Moor.  It allows Iago to insert the most blatantly sexual and jealousy-stimulating images into Othello’s mind, but from a source that can easily be dismissed as trivial and foolish.  Indeed, Iago bolsters his own credibility when he feigns skepticism about the waking-world significance of Cassio’s strange sleeping behavior:

“Nay, this was but his dream.”  (III.iii.416)

As Iago intends, Othello replies by insisting that he shall decide for himself what to think about Cassio:

“But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ‘tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.” (III.iii.417-418)

From here, Iago immediately pivots to the topic of the precious handkerchief that Othello gave as a present to Desdemona, and that Iago has stolen and is about to plant in Cassio’s possession.  Iago thereby weaves together “proofs” from various sources, each one small in itself but together forming a larger pattern of meaning, a pattern that, unbeknownst to Othello, has been predetermined to drive him mad.  The mighty warrior is no match for his malevolent servant’s interpretive reasoning.

For the most part, Iago acts as a mere assistant, letting Othello feel like he is in charge of determining what his wife has been doing and how he should respond.  But at one crucial moment Iago gives the Moor a shocking directive.  Othello has just decided he must kill Desdemona for her infidelity, and he asks Iago to get him some poison.  Iago replies:

“Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.”  (IV.i.214-215)

Iago makes this horrifying proposal because he knows that Othello’s rage is also mixed with sadness (“but yet the pity of it, Iago”) and might distract him from carrying out his deadly intentions.  By demanding that he kill Desdemona in their marital bed, Iago helps Othello perceive it as a heroic act with an epic meaning, a violent but noble triumph in the cause of restoring moral order to the universe.  Othello replies:

“Good, good, the justice of it pleases; very good.” (IV.i.216)

Iago has persuaded Othello to think of murdering his wife in their bed as pleasing, as “good, good… very good.”  This line is chilling testimony to Iago’s success in warping Othello’s soul.

This is the same bed that Desdemona, just a few scenes earlier, has playfully described as a “school” where she hopes to teach her husband about empathy and compassion for others (III.iii.24).  She is planning to devote herself to expanding his emotional self-awareness, but she never gets the chance.  The bed where she wants to cultivate their relationship in new directions becomes the place where he, in a single-minded rage, will destroy it.

Othello likes to think of himself in larger-than-life terms, as a legendary hero bursting forth from a realm of mythic dreams.  Desdemona loves him for his adventurous spirit, but she is also trying to temper his warrior instincts and bring out a fuller human being.  Iago, however, feeds his grandiosity, stokes his reflexive aggression, and encourages his naïve assumptions.  Othello, the proud and courageous veteran of so many fearsome battles, chooses, at this decisive moment in his life, to follow the easier, cowardly path.  Death and destruction for all is the result.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly Bulkeley

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma!

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyPeeling away Freudian assumptions to reach a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A radiant new production of the musical Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival re-interprets a classic American love story for contemporary audiences.  With bold innovations in casting, staging, and choreography, the OSF production differs in many ways from the 1943 Broadway stage version and the 1955 Oscar-winning film.  Far from changing the story, these innovations amplify and extend its original, joyful spirit.

This is especially true with “the Dream Ballet,” the elaborate dance sequence that ends Act I.  Created by the legendary Agnes de Mille, the Dream Ballet has become an icon in the history of American musicals.  The new OSF production, directed by Bill Rauch and choreographed by Ann Yee, intensifies the emotional energy of this central moment in the play and deepens our psychological insight into the feelings and motivations of the characters.

At the risk of theatrical heresy, I will say the OSF production of the Dream Ballet is better than the original. It goes further in illuminating the emotional heart of this dramatized nightmare, and it peels away the original version’s mistaken psychoanalytic assumptions about female sexuality to reveal a deeper human truth about the capacity to love.

A Dream of Love: Interpreting the Dream Ballet in OSF’s Oklahoma! by Kelly BulkeleyA quick recap of the plot: Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and Ali Hakim, a Persian traveling salesman, are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s girlfriends.

The OSF production makes two significant changes in casting.  Curly is played by a woman, Tatiana Wechsler, and Ado Annie is now Ado Andy, played by a man, Jonathan Luke Stevens.  The love triangles are the same, but the gender dynamics have changed, and the Dream Ballet changes, too.

The new production makes it easier to recognize that Laurey’s dream is not about a romantic choice between Curly and Jud.  The preceding scenes make it clear that Laurey only agreed to go to the Box Social with Jud in order to spite Curly (“I did it because Curly was so fresh”), and she confesses to Aunt Eller that she’s deeply scared of the brooding, resentful Jud: “Sumpin’ wrong inside him, Aunt Eller… I know what I’m talkin’ about.” In the OSF version, Laurey’s romantic desires are obviously inclined toward the female Curly, which doubly emphasizes her sexual disinterest in Jud.

What, then, is Laurey dreaming about, if not a choice of Jud versus Curly?

The dream begins with a playfully sensual dance, in which Laurey revels in the pure freedom of movement and feeling that open up to her within this imaginal space.  A spotlight tracks her as she dances and floats across the stage, casting an enormous, graceful shadow on the screen behind.  Then Curly enters the dream and joins her dance, along with other shadow spirits who further enliven the increasingly romantic atmosphere.  The dancing gradually morphs into a beautiful wedding procession.  But just as Laurey is ready to pledge her vows to Curly, Jud steps between them.

Everything suddenly darkens, as Jud takes control of the dream space and everyone’s behavior within it. He seizes Laurey, casts Curly aside, and forces all the other characters to conform to his personal desires, desires that have been stoked by the pornographic pictures in his smoke house.  The women from these pictures now enter into the dream and move around the stage like harlequin puppets, mimicking sexual acts with a robotic lack of emotion.

The most striking innovation in the OSF version of the Dream Ballet occurs at this point, when Jud commands that two characters with non-traditional gender presentations be forced to switch their clothing, so they look like a “normal” man and woman.

Laurey seems utterly helpless as Jud imposes his will on her dreamscape, turning it into a nightmare of paralyzing weakness and vulnerability.  When Jud rises up against Curly and violently attacks her, pounding her with wooden logs and punching her mercilessly, Laurey is terrified that Curly might actually die under the assault.

At that moment, Laurey’s agency suddenly returns.  She steps between them, letting Jud know she will accept him if he will let Curly live.  Jud agrees, the violence ceases, and the dream ends.

If, as I’ve suggested, the dream is not about Laurey’s romantic indecision between Curly and Jud, then perhaps their presence in her dream should be viewed in less literal terms.  Perhaps their significance is more symbolic or metaphorical in meaning.

A good way of testing that idea is to apply the “Gestalt” approach of psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970).  Perls taught that one way to explore dreams is to treat them as inner theatrical productions, with every element of the dream—each object, setting, and character—representing some metaphorical aspect of the dreamer’s own personality.  The dramatic conflicts in dreams reveal parts of ourselves that are immature, alienated, or not yet integrated. The better we understand these conflicts, the more fully we can grow into our innate potentials for health and wholeness.

This is just one way to look at dreams, and many others could be validly applied here.  But let’s see where a Gestalt approach leads.

For Laurey, her conflicts in the play revolve around one of the most frightening experiences of human life: falling in love.  If she yields to her feelings for Curly, Laurey will have to let down her guard and emotionally open herself more than she ever has before.  She will become a new interpersonal being, a sexually mature adult, an intimate romantic partner.  To fall in love is to undergo a total transformation of the self.  The first scenes of the play make it clear that Laurey is, indeed, falling deeply in love with Curly, who just as clearly loves her back.  But for some reason, Laurey cannot openly express her feelings.  What’s holding her back?

This is where the Gestalt approach may help.  Using this method, we look for aspects of Laurey’s personality that can be described metaphorically as an “inner Jud” threatening to destroy her budding love with Curly.  And here, I believe, we come to an intriguing notion.  At least twice in the early parts of the play, Laurey behaves in quite Jud-like ways.

First, Laurey’s response to Curly’s songs to her (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”) follows the same emotional trajectory as Jud’s response to Curly’s song to him (“Poor Jud”)—their initial enchantment with Curly’s alluring visions turning to bitterness and disillusionment at how far the visions fall from reality.  Laurey berates Curly after the “Surrey” song, saying “Why’d you come around here with yer stories and lies, gittin’ me all worked up that-a-way?”, before furiously slamming the door on her.  Laurey’s angry distrust blocks her from accepting the uncertain future of a romantic relationship with Curly, just as Jud’s angry distrust prevents him from forming any kind of relationship at all.

Second, when Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to the Box Social, her goal is not to spend more time with Jud, but rather to provoke a jealous reaction in Curly.  Whether intentionally or not, Laurey tries to manipulate both of them to suit her personal needs and desires.  She treats Jud as an impersonal tool, and Curly as a passive object for her to control.  This is ultimately Jud’s deepest character flaw: his obsession with dehumanizing fantasies of power and control that seem to fulfill his wishes but in fact only make it harder for him to become truly intimate with real humans.

None of this is to suggest that Laurey is exactly like Jud in all ways, or that we should feel more sympathy for his violent behavior.  Rather, this Gestalt-informed approach suggests the Dream Ballet is a metaphorical vision of why exactly Laurey is having so much difficulty letting herself fall in love: She’s too much like Jud. To enter into a truly mutual and loving relationship with Curly, Laurey must first deal with the problematic qualities she shares with Jud.  As her dream vividly portrays, these qualities will kill any chance of a real relationship with Curly.

Laurey seems unable to stop Jud’s attacks on Curly in the dream, until she makes the active, conscious decision to embrace Jud.  Again, this does not signal Laurey’s romantic preference for Jud.  In a Gestalt view, this means that Laurey realizes in the dream the only way to save her love for Curly is to take responsibility for her own Jud-like qualities and grow into a larger self that can encompass these energies without being overwhelmed or dominated by them.  This greater emergent self is prefigured in the OSF production with Laurey’s magnified dancing shadow, a dark but graceful harbinger of growth to come.

To sum it up in Shakespearean terms, Laurey comes to a realization similar to that of Prospero at the end of The Tempest: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” (V.i.275-276)

Unfortunately, when Laurey awakens she immediately (mis)interprets the dream in a literalistic way, as instructing her to choose Jud over Curly. It takes the second act of the play for Laurey to recognize her mistake and learn how to express her true feelings.  She finally agrees to join Curly in marriage, and she rallies the strength to confront the “outer” Jud and tell him he’s fired.  In both instances, Laurey speaks with greater confidence, maturity, and passion than ever before.  She has indeed grown to become a newly conscious being, sure of her own expanded power, and yet willing to open herself fully and lovingly to another.

I would offer this same argument about the meaning of the Dream Ballet in the original production of Oklahoma!, but it would be a tougher case to make.  This is why I say the OSF production is better than the original, which was overlaid with so many Freudian preconceptions that Laurey’s deeper conflict is harder to appreciate.

According to Freud, whose psychoanalytic theories were enormously influential in the mid-20th century United States, dreams are fantasy fulfillments of unconscious wishes, usually sexual, that remain unfulfilled in waking life.  The Dream Ballet seems to fit this theory perfectly: Laurey naturally desires a sexual relationship with a real man, not a boy, and Jud’s postcard girls symbolize her own repressed erotic wishes.  Laurey’s mind may prefer Curly, but her loins favor the hot, fiery Jud. To resolve this conflict and fulfill her unconscious wish, the dream sets it up so that Laurey’s embrace of Jud appears to be a morally virtuous self-sacrifice, rather than the lustfully satisfying fantasy it truly is.  Both ego and id get what they want.

In the original staging, with Jud and Curly cast as men, such an interpretation makes a superficial kind of sense, especially with Curly having a gun in the dream that won’t shoot, a classic Freudian symbol of male impotence.  And yet this interpretation depends on a theory about “hidden” female sexual desire that is problematic, to say the least.  It suggests Laurey’s resistance to Jud is actually repressed unconscious desire.  When she says no to him, she’s really wanting to say yes.

As I’ve noted above, there is nothing in the text to justify the idea that Laurey is romantically attracted to Jud.  Only if Freud’s mistaken ideas about unconscious female sexuality are smuggled into the story can Laurey’s character and dream be interpreted in this way.

The OSF production liberates Laurey from these psychoanalytic shackles and brings forth a more authentic dimension of meaning in her dream that was always there, but not as evident in the original version.  With Curly cast as a woman, it becomes clearer than ever that Laurey’s deepest conflict is not simply about sex, but about love—the frightening, exhilarating, and transformative experience of falling in love with another person.

 

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, May 2, 2018.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in “Oklahoma!”

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly BulkeleyA brilliant exploration of the dark psychological depths of sexual desire appears in an unlikely place—a country musical from the 1940’s.

Oklahoma! was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the duo who went on to write many of Broadway’s most famous mid-century musicals.  A new production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival promises to stimulate new interest in this classic theatrical work through innovative casting, staging, and choreography from director Bill Rauch and choreographer Ann Yee.

Oklahoma! offers a surprisingly complex portrait of dreaming, desire, and the unconscious mind, and I plan to write a more detailed appraisal once the OSF production opens in April.  To set the stage, as it were, I wanted to start with an overview of the traditional production, which opened in 1943 and has since been performed in thousands of other venues in the US and around the world.  An Academy Award-winning movie adaptation appeared in 1955.

Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s friends.

The play both opens and closes with the joyfully optimistic song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and the action unfolds in the space created between those two happy moments of dawning light.

In the very center of the play, at the end of the Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.  Other plays and musicals before Oklahoma! had included scenes of dancing framed as dreams, but no one had ever pushed the dream theme into such bold psychological territory, with so much sophistication and artistry in the choreography.  Much of the credit goes to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, who helped Rogers and Hammerstein craft what became one of the most famous scenes in the play.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly Bulkeley

In the scene just before the ballet, Jud is alone and brooding about his sexual frustration.  The pornographic “postcards” in his room excite his fantasies (“And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head”), but ultimately leave him feeling empty, deceived, and even angrier than before.  He finally declares, “I ain’t gonna dream ‘bout her arms no more!” and sets off to claim Laurey for his own.

Laurey, meanwhile, sits down in the shade of a tree in her yard and drinks a special sleeping potion (“the Elixir of Egypt”) she purchased from Ali Hakim, hoping it will “make up my mind fer me” and help her “to see things clear.”  She slowly nods off, while a group of neighboring girls sing a lullaby about flying from her dreams into the arms of the man she truly loves.  The girls disappear, Laurey falls into a deep sleep, and the dream begins.

Each of the characters in the main love triangle has a kind of dream-world counterpart or avatar, a professional dancer who performs their roles during the 17-minute sequence.  It begins well enough, with Laurey dancing “ecstatically” with Curly.  After many vigorous upward thrusts and arousing leaps through the air, they find themselves at a wedding, walking down the aisle, about to take their vows.  But at the last moment it is Jud, not Curly, who appears in front of her.  Laurey is terrified as Jud and the risqué women from his postcards take over the dream.  Curly has a gun and tries to shoot Jud, but the gun has no effect.  Jud attacks Curly and starts choking him to death.  Laurey begs Jud to stop, and promises to go with him if he will spare Curly’s life.  Jud agrees, and takes Laurey with him, as she bids a “heartbroken” farewell to Curly.

At this moment, Jud walks up to the tree in her yard.  “Wake up, Laurey,” he says, “It’s time to start fer the party.”  Just then Curly walks up to the house, too, hoping she will choose him instead.  Laurey, now fully awake, is seized with panic:

“Remembering the disaster of her recent dream, she avoids its reality by taking Jud’s arm and going with him, looking wistfully back at Curly with the same sad eyes that her ballet counterpart had on her exit. Curly stands alone, puzzled, dejected and defeated, as the curtain falls.”

This marks the end of Act I.

The provocative content and staging of the Dream Ballet was originally envisioned by Hammerstein to be “bizarre, imaginative and amusing, and never heavy.” (Carter 129)  De Mille, however, wanted to shift the tone; she suggested bringing Jud’s postcard girls into the action, and making the whole thing darker and gloomier.  Virtually all musicals try to send their audiences into intermission on a happy, buoyant note; the Dream Ballet of Oklahoma!  has the diametrically opposite effect, which de Mille felt would be entirely appropriate for Laurey’s character and situation at this point in the story.

In a later interview, de Mille said she pushed Hammerstein to make the dream sequence more emotionally realistic, more like the kinds of anxiety dreams that girls and young women actually experience: “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” (Carter 123)

Thus, the core moment in one of America’s most beloved works of musical theater is a violently realistic sexual nightmare.

The Dream Ballet is an amazing work of art.  It is also a remarkably insightful portrait of the dreaming mind.  For those who study dreams, Oklahoma! raises a number of intriguing questions that can shed new light on the play, its cultural impact, and the dreaming imagination.  I will wait to see the OSF production in late April before saying more, but these are some of the anticipatory questions and ideas dancing through my mind:

Was Agnes de Mille right, as a matter of empirical fact, that girls have a tendency to dream about “horrors” and “dirty” topics?  What might modern research on the dream patterns of young women reveal about the unconscious dynamics of Laurey’s dilemma?

Has Laurey unknowingly performed a ritual of dream incubation?  She drinks the “Elixir of Egypt,” sleeps in a special place, focuses her mind on a particular question as she drifts off, and then has a dream relating to her question.  That’s pretty much the definition of a dream incubation ritual (as per Kimberley Patton.)

Is Laurey’s dream a threat simulation, along the lines of what Antti Revonsuo has proposed?  Revonsuo focused on recurrent chasing nightmares as an instance of dreams that simulate a possible threat and rehearse our response to it, so we’re better prepared in waking life if that threat should actually arise.  Laurey has a dream of Jud threatening to kill Curly, which is indeed a realistic appraisal of the dangers in her waking life.

Is her dream a sexual wish-fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud would say?  In 1940’s New York City, it’s a fair guess the Oklahoma! creative team knew about psychoanalysis and its theories about unconscious sexual desires.  Laurey certainly has a more intense and erotic interaction with Curly in dreaming than she ever does in waking.  The dream’s sexual charge only grows with the appearance of Jud’s postcard girls, who stir up even more libidinal energy, with less romance and more raw carnal desire.  And poor Curly with his limp gun…

Is Jud a shadow symbol for Laurey and the whole Oklahoma community, as Carl Jung might suggest?  From the very beginning of the play Jud is portrayed as dark, crude, rough, hairy, animal-like, stupid, and inarticulate.  He lives alone in a “smokehouse,” seething with unfulfilled instinctual urges.  He could be seen as a radical Other, in the symbolic lineage of Lucifer, Caliban, Gollum, and Darth Vader, the embodiment of all the darkness that is not allowed into the light of conscious awareness, and thus banished to the depths of the unconscious.

Does Laurey misinterpret her dream?  How exactly is her action upon awakening (choosing Jud over Curly) justified by what she has dreamed?  In both fiction and real life, people who instantly interpret their dreams usually get it wrong.  The quick response often overlooks deeper, more important meanings that the conscious mind may be all to ready to move past.  (I call this “the Odyssean fallacy.”)

Does Jud misinterpret his dream?  Same question—why does Jud think the action he takes (aggressively demanding Laurey’s affection) is justified by his arousing yet frustrating dreams of the postcard girls?  What might he be overlooking?

Finally, how will the OSF creative team reimagine this classic work for a new century and a new America?

I can’t wait to see!

 

Reference: Tim Carter, Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, Yale University Press, 2007.

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Jealous paranoia cannot distinguish between dreaming and waking in one of Shakespeare’s bawdiest works.

There are several reasons why “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has generally been considered one of Shakespeare’s minor plays.  It’s an absurd, bawdy farce set in an English country village around 1600, bereft of any epic characters, grand locales, or soaring lyrical speeches.  Revolving around the rakish antics of Sir John Falstaff, the play comes across as an entertaining trifle filled with sexual puns, slapstick comedy, and a variety of ridiculous schemes, disguises, and deceptions.  This may all be true, yet it overlooks an interesting element of darkness in The Merry Wives, an element that elicits the only references to dreaming in the play.

Master Ford is the husband of one of the two wives of the title, and there is very little merriment about him.  On the contrary, he stands out among the other characters for the intensity of his one driving emotion—jealousy.  Master Ford also stands out for his moral rigidity and insufferable pompousness, but it’s the jealousy that really defines him and motivates his behavior.  He says as much in a brief soliloquy, after meeting the other wife, Mistress Page, and hearing her talk about Falstaff.  Master Ford immediately concludes that both his wife and Master Page’s wife are having romantic affairs with Falstaff, and he criticizes Master Page for failing to keep close enough watch over his faithless spouse: “Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure, they sleep; he hath no use of them” (III.ii.26-28).

Master Ford decides that, despite other people’s doubts, he will wake everyone up by revealing the true sinfulness of these “revolted wives.”  He will appear suddenly at his house and catch the lecherous Falstaff in the act: “There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go” (III.ii.42-45).

Dreams and Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Kelly BulkeleyIn the next scene a supremely confident Master Ford brings a group of companions to his house to apprehend Falstaff.  His wife, in the midst of sending out the dirty laundry, denies that Sir John is there.  Master Ford contemplates the laundry basket, which is about to be sent out for “buck-washing” (a traditional means of laundering clothes by soaking and rinsing them repeatedly with lye, ash, or urine), and utters some strange lines: “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck—and of the season too, it shall appear” (III.iii.155-157).

Several sexual allusions are compressed into Master Ford’s odd little speech.  Unfortunately for him, while he is fixated on the multiple meanings of “buck,” the laundry basket containing the hidden Falstaff is taken out of the house.  Now Master Page turns to his companions and makes a bold declaration: “Gentlemen, I have dreamed tonight. I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here be my keys. Ascend my chambers; search, seek, find out. I warrant we’ll unkennel the fox” (III.iii.158-162).

His use of “dream” here, the first mention of the term in the play, is meant ironically.  It seems unlikely that Master Ford is referencing an actual dream; rather, he’s playing with the term, to enhance the impressiveness of his ultimate victory.  Master Ford is framing what he believes will be his triumphant discovery of Falstaff as a prophetic dream: last night he dreamed of something that will be revealed to his companions when they find Sir John, the implication being that Master Ford foresaw the infidelity in his dream, and now his companions will see tangible proof that his dream has come true and he was right all along.

But there are at least a couple layers of deeper irony to his “dream” that Master Ford does not seem to recognize.  First, his companions do not find Falstaff in the house, so his allegedly prophetic dream fails to come true as he so grandly predicted it would.  Second, the certainty he feels about this dream, and about his wife’s sinfulness, is actually based on his own vain and substance-free fantasy that he assumes is as solid as the earth itself.  And third, if he had not been so absorbed in his resentful musings (“buck, buck, buck!”), he might have noticed that Falstaff was in fact right in front of him; so Master Ford’s dream did come true, but he was too captivated by his jealousy to realize it.  By making the self-aggrandizing claim that he had received a miraculous dream revelation of Falstaff’s illicit presence in his house, Master Ford only magnifies the humiliating mockery he feared would be the result of his efforts to unmask the sinners all around him.

Perhaps Master Ford would have let it go at this point, but then he hears Falstaff (who is himself thoroughly deluded about what’s actually happening) brag that he has already enjoyed the delights of Mistress Page and is planning to return to her house as soon as possible.  This seems to confirm Master Ford’s worst fears, and his jealousy heats to a full boil.  In another brooding soliloquy right after Falstaff leaves, Master Page repudiates sleep and dreaming and forces himself to face what he thinks is a damnable reality: “Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole made in your best coat, Master Ford!”  (III.v.137-140)

Again, the irony is that by forcing himself to “awake,” he is actually descending even further into his jealousy-fueled fantasy.  By rejecting dreaming, he is rejecting something that could in fact provide him with accurate insight into the perception-warping effects of his violent passions and emotional insecurities.

The production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival featured the actress K.T. Vogt as Falstaff, a brilliant piece of casting that breathed new life into the old rogue and his errant codpiece.  Master Ford was played by Rex Young, an OSF veteran whose evocation of fragile male pride was strong enough to drive the plot forward, but not so strong as to overwhelm the delightful antics of everyone else.  The aesthetic design of the OSF production was shaped by the giddy, gaudy 80’s, with pastel clothing and bouncy music, and in Master Ford’s second soliloquy, which ends with an angry pledge to fight back against his tormentors (“I’ll be horn-mad”), the musical accompaniment is “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads—a perfect touch for the dramatic moment.  Master Ford is indeed committing himself to the darkest of purposes, and yet he does so to the beat of an irresistibly danceable song.

Perhaps “The Merry Wives” seems like a minor work because the shadow elements are limited to one character and never become so intense that they overwhelm the lighter elements of love, laughter, and play.  But those darker energies are there, and are a significant part of the story.  Here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the seemingly illusory experience of dreaming provides a portal into hidden realms of emotion and desire that reflect the deepest and most honest realities of human life.

The final scene of the play is a festive forest spectacle in which the main characters disguise themselves as a troop of mischievous fairies and “moonshine revelers” in order to scare the poor Falstaff out of his wits.  This scene includes an evocation of sleep and dreaming that seems to reflect contemporary folk beliefs about the magical wonders and dangers of the night.  When Falstaff sees what he thinks are fairies coming, he falls to the ground and covers his eyes, because of the legend that fairies will kill those who look upon them without permission.  A moment later the first fairy (the parson Sir Hugh Evans) arrives and issues the following command to the other fairies:

“Where’s Bede? Go you, and where you find a maid

That ere she sleep has thrice her prayers said,

Raise up the organs of her fantasy,

Sleep she as sound as careless infancy.

But those as sleep and think not on their sins,

Pinch them, arms, legs, backs, shoulders, sides, and shins.” (V.v.52-57)

Some versions of Shakespeare have “Bead” instead of “Bede.”  To me, “Bede” makes more sense as a reference to the 8th c. monk Bede and his famous work of astronomy The Reckoning of Time.  In Shakespeare’s time Bede was still considered an authority on lunar events and the impact of the moon on earthly life.  I don’t know what “Where’s Bead?” would mean in this context (there’s no reference to a character with that name), but “Where’s Bede?” could mean something like, “Where’s our authority on the moon, because this is certainly a realm under a strong lunar influence?”  It’s the kind of thing an Elizabethan might typically say upon first entering a beautiful moonlit glade at night.

The rest of the passage suggests a sharp religious dichotomy: prayers and spiritual humility can protect against fairy attacks and prompt restful sleep and inspiring dreams (“raise up the organs of her fantasy”), while people who do not pray or “think on their sins” will suffer sharp pains all over their bodies during sleep. This scene has strong echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” written a few years earlier, and of other plays in which sleep and dreaming are presented as eternal battlegrounds between competing supernatural beings fighting over our souls.  This may or may not have been Shakespeare’s personal view, but it does reflect widely held beliefs among his culture and the members of his audience.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly BulkeleyTo be a king, one must give up sleep and dreams in favor of the ruling duties of waking life.

This is the grim truth that animates much of the action in Henry IV Part II.  The second chapter of prince Hal’s transformation into King Henry V contains two of the most vivid references to sleep and dreaming in all of Shakespeare’s works.  Hal’s father, King Henry IV, suffers from an agonizing inability to sleep, prompting him to exclaim the famous line, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  At the climax of the play, the newly crowned King Henry V publicly humiliates and cruelly disavows his old friend Sir John Falstaff, comparing him to a foolish dream—“but, being awaked, I do despise my dream.”

Below are all the references to sleep and dreams in the play, with brief comments.  The play is currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.  The outstanding cast includes Jeffrey King as King Henry IV, Daniel Jose Molina as prince Hal, and G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff.

 

I.ii.45

Falstaff: “Well, he may sleep in security; for he hath the horn of abundance, and the lightness of his wife shines through it…”

Sir John Falstaff is appearing here for the first time in the play, and he immediately becomes angry that a tailor will not accept his “security,” i.e. his pledge to pay his debts.  Falstaff cannot provide the security the tailor demands, so instead the old rogue pivots to a different meaning of “security,” insulting the tailor by suggesting he’s a cuckold (with horns), unaware of his wife’s infidelity (lightness) while he sleeps in apparent safety and ease.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

I.ii.111-113

Falstaff: “This apoplexy, as I take it, is a kind of lethargy, an’t please your lordship, a kind of sleeping in the blood, a whoreson tingling.”

The Chief Justice has just entered the scene, and he demands to speak with Sir John about his criminal behavior.  Falstaff avoids the question by asking the Chief Justice about the health of the king, Henry IV, who is reportedly ill with “apoplexy.”  The king has been losing his vitality and energy through a “kind of sleeping in the blood,” and Falstaff wants the Chief Justice to focus on what will happen when the king is dead—prince Hal, the good friend of Sir John, will ascend to the throne, and he will not look kindly on the mistreatment of his closest pals.  Falstaff’s medical diagnosis of the king is a thinly-veiled threat against the Chief Justice.

I.ii.153-154

Chief Justice: “But since all is well, keep it so. Wake not a sleeping wolf.”

The Chief Justice does not press the point, but he gives Falstaff a warning of his own.  The proverb suggests that a prudent person will recognize the benefit of allowing a violent beast to remain in peaceful slumber.

II.i.76-77

Hostess: “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his. But I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee o’nights like the mare.”

Falstaff: “I think I am as like to ride the mare, if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”

Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern, complains to the Chief Justice about the money Falstaff owes her and refuses to pay.  Having no other recourse, she threatens to harass the old rogue in his sleep like a nightmare.  Sir John deflects her anger by transforming the nightmare curse into a bawdy invitation.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Henry IV Part II by Kelly Bulkeley

II.ii.86-88

Bardolph: “Away, you whoreson upright rabbit, away!”

Page: “Away, you rascally Althaea’s dream, away!”

Prince: “Instruct us, boy; what dream, boy?”

Page: “Marry, my lord, Althaea dreamt she was delivered of a firebrand; and therefore I call him her dream.”

Prince: “A crown’s worth of good interpretation. There ‘tis, boy.”

This scene starts with prince Hal and his disreputable companion Poins discussing the king’s illness, and Hal’s unwillingness to show his true feelings.  Then Bardolph and the young Page arrive, two bumbling fools with a message from Falstaff.  Poins makes fun of Bardolph’s red face (discolored from drink), and the Page reveals that Bardolph was recently with a prostitute.  The furious Bardolph chases after the Page, who calls him “Althaea’s dream.” Prince Hal takes interest in this, and asks what the boy means.  The Page responds by mistakenly combining two classic mythological tales.  Althaea was an ancient Greek queen who killed her own son by burning a brand (piece of wood) that, so it was prophesied at his birth, would cause his death if ever consumed by fire. Hecuba was a Trojan queen who had a dream while pregnant that she gives birth to a firebrand; the child she bore from that pregnancy, her son Paris, was the impetuous warrior who abducted Helen, sparking the war that led to the destruction of their city.  Several other Shakespearean plays make accurate references to the story of Hecuba, so it seems likely the Page’s conflation of the two stories is intentional and not a mistake of Shakespeare’s.  Does prince Hal know or care if the Page’s mythology is accurate?  Maybe not, but the prince does appreciate a fine display of wit.  Hal plays along with the dream theme by offering the Page a small payment (the crown) for the pleasing interpretation, just as if he were consulting a diviner in the marketplace.

II.iv.200-201

Pistol: “What! Shall we have incision?  Shall we imbrue? [Snatching up his sword.]

Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days!”

The Ancient Pistol, one of the rowdy soldiers who hang around the tavern, gets in a drunken brawl with Falstaff.  The notion of death as a kind of sleep is pervasive in Shakespeare, and in classical mythology.

II.iv.382-386

Falstaff: “Farewell, hostess. Farewell, Doll. You see, my good wenches, how men of merit are sought after. The undeserver may sleep when the man of action is called on. Farewell, good wenches.”

Sir John was just about to go to bed with his female companions, but he is suddenly informed that a dozen of the king’s men are waiting at the door for him.  Falstaff realizes he can no longer escape the military service that a nobleman like himself must perform.  He thus turns necessity into a virtue and presents himself to his lady friends as a man of extraordinary importance whose sage presence the king desires immediately.  The moral contrast between he draws between a virtuous man of action like himself and a slothful “undeserver” is undercut by the fact that Falstaff was just about to retire for the evening, until forced by a troop of soldiers to do otherwise.

III.i.4-17, 26-31

King: “How many thousands of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,

And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile

In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch

A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?…

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The next scene occurs in the palace, where the aging king Henry IV appears “in his nightgown,” desperately desiring to sleep and yet unable to do so.  Falstaff’s fantasy of the wakeful “man of action” is belied by the painful reality of mighty ruler who is strangely impotent in the domain of sleep.  Alone with his insomnia, the king broods over the baffling irony of sleep bestowing its gifts to the lowliest of people in the worst of circumstances, and yet denying any comfort or rest to the greatest and most powerful man of all.  These ruminations prompt the king to utter perhaps the most famous line in the play, an honest reckoning with the cost he has paid for the power he seized and hopes to pass on to his son.

IV.ii.37-42

Archbishop: “I sent your Grace

The parcels and particulars of our grief,

The which hath been scorn shov’d from the court,

Whereon this hydra son of war is born;

Whose dangerous eyes my well be charm’d asleep

With grant of our most just and right desires…”

The Archbishop and the other rebels against the king have met to negotiate with his son, prince John.  The Archbishop diplomatically suggests that the monstrous violence of war, which once set loose can grow horribly out of control, may be “charm’d asleep” if the king will simply grant their legitimate grievances.  The prince seems to agree.  But it soon turns out he was in fact charming the Archbishop; as soon as the rebel troops are released, the prince seizes the Archbishop and other rebellion leaders and sends them to their execution.

IV.iv.65-68

King: “The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,

In forms imaginary, th’unguided days

And rotten times that you shall look upon

When I am sleeping with my ancestors.”

On the verge of death, the king sadly anticipates the wasteful, unruly behavior of his son Hal, who will inherit the crown once the king is gone.  Even when he is on the brink of succumbing to the eternal sleep of death, the king cannot help worrying about the world he will leave behind in the hands of his degenerate child.

IV.iv.135-138

Gloucester: “The people fear me, for they do observe

Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.

The seasons change their manners, as the year

Had found some months asleep and leaped them over.”

The ailing king’s closest allies gather in the palace and speak darkly about what will happen next.  The Duke of Gloucester describes strange omens and worrisome changes in the weather that seem to foretell conflict ahead.  Here is another metaphorical contrast between sleeping passivity and waking action.

IV.iv.20-21

Warwick: “Not so much noise, my lords. Sweet Prince, speak low;

The King your father is dispos’d to sleep.”

Now, at the very end of his reign and his life, sleep briefly returns to the king.

IV.iv.26-30, 39-42

Prince: “Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,

Being so troublesome a bedfellow?

O polish’d perturbation! Golden care!

That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide

To many a watchful night! Sleep with it now!…

My gracious lord! My father!

This sleep is sound indeed; this is a sleep

That from this golden rigol hath divorc’d

So many English kings.”

Prince Hal enters the bed chamber of his father, where the golden crown sits on a pillow next to the slumbering monarch.  Hal is initially puzzled by this, since he knows the bitter impact of this band of metal on his father’s sleep.  But then the prince thinks his father has slipped into an eternal sleep, and he resolves himself to honor his father’s noble death by taking up the crown and devoting his life to upholding their royal lineage.

IV.iv.73-74,

King: “Is he so hasty that he doth suppose

My sleep my death?…

For this the foolish overcareful fathers

Have broke their sleep with thoughts, their brains with care…”

After the prince leaves his father’s bed chamber, the king briefly awakens and worries that Hal has greedily snatched the crown before the king is even dead.  This fear sets up their final deathbed reconciliation, and Hal pledges that once he becomes King it will be time “to show the incredulous world the noble change that I have purposed.”  Reassured by his son’s promise to rule wisely and well, King Henry IV dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V.

V.v.52-56

Falstaff: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

Prince: “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,

So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;

But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.”

Falstaff assumes his greatest wish has come true—his criminal protégé, the young prince, has become the new king, and he will surely give Sir John total freedom and license to indulge his many, many appetites.  This has been Falstaff’s plan and expectation since the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, and now at the end of Part II, he celebrates the rise of his “sweet boy” to the throne.  But this turns out to be the moment when Falstaff’s wishes are not only dashed but utterly annihilated in five cold, cutting lines of verse.  The newly crowned King repudiates everything having to do with Falstaff, using language that echoes a famous biblical warning against dreams in Psalm 73:20: “They are like a dream when one awakes, on awaking you despise their phantoms.” (RSV)  This particular psalm asks God why He allows wicked people to prosper in the world, and the psalmist concludes that God will eventually cause them to fall into ruin and be swept away, just as wispy dreams disappear in the light of morning.  The new king casts Falstaff in this biblical mold, and in so doing he both rejects Sir John and identifies himself as a traditional, righteous king who is a vigorous man of action, not a dreamer.  Even though he admits that this man has been a long-time presence in his life, Henry V is now focused entirely on his duties to the future.

As the play ends, I cannot help asking: will the new king suffer the same deep psychological damage, the same painful alienation from his sleeping and dreaming self, that plagued the old king?